Uncomfortably warm: Professor Doreen Stabinsky and climate change leadership

6 mins read

Doreen Stabinsky is the first recipient of the Zennström professorship in Climate Change Leadership at the University of Uppsala, a ten year initiative set out to, ‘address some of the most challenging questions that climate change poses to humanity’.

We attended her inaugural welcome to the university and professor Stabinsky’s first opportunity to mark the beginning of what is hoped to be a leading position in motivating action, activism, and communication around real climate action within Uppsala university and beyond.

For twenty or so minutes of her opening address professor Stabinsky gave virtually the same lecture that every climate change oriented researcher, teacher and even student has given over the past 20+  years, just with more aggravated figures and greater certainty: rising CO2 levels, greenhouse gases, temperature curves, warming atmosphere, heating, melting, drought, starving, poverty, fossil fuels, extinction, loss…

And then, with a salvo, the gloves were off and Stabinsky broke the dulled sense of what had washed over us in the first twenty minutes, like an ice cube down the back of a slumbering man in a  suit: The lecture had been titled, “On the road to Paris…”, and her thoughts on a potential outcome of COP21?

“It will not be equitable. It will not be below two degrees”

This can hardly be seen as hyperbole from someone closely involved in the UNFCCC negotiations and whose academic work centres around the empowerment and education of young people. Yet the frankness with which she spoke was both arresting and refreshing.

However, it wasn’t as though she could have omitted the first twenty minutes of the litany that has come to represent climate change education and go right at the jugular from the start. Instead, for one reason or another, it still remains necessary for anyone who is to speak out about climate action to point out the fact- and further justify-  that the carriage we are on-board is still hurtling towards a pretty unfriendly looking train-wreck unless someone chooses to act. This point aside what she went on to say in the latter quarter of her time is what demanded most attention.

Stabinsky lecture headshot 50

 “At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and the imagination to conceive that it could be different”

Roberto Unger

Stabinsky was unwavering in her articulation of the problems faced. Political messages couched in well crafted phrases have upheld a two degrees target as relatively safe and obtainable when, from the reality of research, an optimist might cross their fingers for closer to a 4-5 degrees Celsius rise at current trends and a low lying islander might as well pack their bags at anything even close to a  two degree hike. The dissonance between rhetoric and reality is not just obfuscating but, with every delay in action, is inordinately damaging. Current international pledges fall comically short, fossil fuels are a liability, global politics are in stasis and this is certainly, Stabinsky proclaims, “not something we leave to the market”. Instead, for Stabinsky this dire reality calls for action no less that,

“We need to dislodge structures of entrenched  power that maintain an industry that is an existential threat to the planet”

Yet how do we ‘dislodge’ that which has come to be taken for naturally predominant and shape virtually all aspects of modern society?

We follow the fundamental lessons learned from those that faced a similarly dominant power system which naturalised a way of thinking that preposterously valued human beings by their skin colour. We provoke and we make life uncomfortable fro those with power. For, “it was only when the [civil rights]movements started making life uncomfortable that change happened”.

Therefore Stabinsky calls on us to oppose what has come to be taken for granted. She calls on us to site on the wrong side of the bus: to act to take the production of power from the monopoly of corporations and place it under community control, to challenge the politics and politicians with oil money in their back pockets and to re-establish the social acceptance of investments.

As Stabinsky stated in her closing statements, “I am convinced that we are not turning around this ship without extreme provocation…If we are passive we will see what 4 degrees warming looks like”

And her ‘we’ was not just a passing of the buck to others but, true to her position, she led from the front and with a warning to the assembled audience of academic dignitaries and esteemed colleagues (as well as a fair number of students) went ahead and provoked.

She spoke of divestment, the snowballing technique of altering the moral landscape of investment through campaigns aimed at pressurising large funding bodies (such as trusts, universities and hedge funds) to choose to remove investments from the patently unsustainable fossil fuel industry. This, in itself, is not so provocative, as she highlighted the ongoing work of the Guardian’s ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign and the growing momentum of divestment, but what was outspoken was that in the presence of aforementioned big wigs of University funding she posed a challenge,

“Uppsala should be next [to divest]…find them, join them, get out in front of history”

Here Stabinsky put talk to walk and made the sort of provocation she had spoken of as well as offering an example of how palpably uncomfortable matters can quickly turn when statements are aimed against entrenched power. In her later Q&A session we experienced this same reaction when we asked professor Stabinsky whether the future of change and provocation she envisioned had any allowance for the existing economic system of capitalism.

The c-word dropped like a lead balloon in the stiffened atmosphere, with the uncomfortable shuffling of important-looking, well suited people a testament to the unpopularity of our probing. And perhaps the boundary of comfort even for Stabinsky had been treaded as, at first, she cautiously opined a politically safe response before eeking out a glimmer of revolutionary imagination: 

“It is hard for me to imagine the end of capitalism but …I do think that if it is not on the table as a political project, it is certainly on the table as a possible outcome of this fossil fuel transformation”

Sometimes we should feel uncomfortable, and making others feel uncomfortable (as perhaps we did to professor Stabinsky herself) is an approach to be championed when real change is necessary. Professor Stabinsky not only advocated this but also acted upon it and will hopefully continue to do so during her time with Uppsala but this, more importantly, needs to be taken up by a broader and more active society. Her call to arms, although dulled slightly by the clinging propriety of such a location and occasion, resonated with a clarity,

“We need people making life uncomfortable for their governments”

The message was evident: we cannot rest hope in the hands of existing systems to adapt by gradual process or market’s hands. Change is needed, provocation is needed, imagination is needed and perhaps most of all courage in accepting those changes and the uncomfortable and daunting reality they entail is required.

 “Students are not only the leaders of tomorrow but, indeed, must be the ones to step into leadership roles right now. And lead us into the world they want to live in”

Stabinsky is in some ways an non-affiliate to Uppsala- she will only be here for a year and in some regards need not worry about making institutional friends. This liminality gives her the potential to make a change from the outside, free from concerns of the vested interests felt by those who are rooted deeper to such a place. That trap of institutionalisation, no matter what the strength of an individual’s convictions, holds a magnetising effect toward dependant paths which actors like herself may be free from. In her we find someone who can de-construct, without sentimentality or habit, this colossus of an institution and offer a new, uncomfortable and exciting path.

Speaking with one of the course co-ordinators at CEMUS after the event, he likened institutions like Uppsala to laden container ships, the weight and momentum of which being such that any change in direction requires great effort, persuasion and time and is by no means swift, but what it needs first is someone to wrench the steering wheel and set the events in motion.

Profound change does not come easy, and with a comparison to the civil rights movements Stabinsky does not recoil from the gravitas of the task ahead yet gives reason beyond the paralysis of helpless fear.

Perhaps it is like this that we should see both the role of actors like Professor Doreen Stabinsky and more broadly the unaffiliated, chaotic and amorphous mass that are ‘social movements’. They are not- and should not- be considered the panacea that will correct all injustice once they can overcome the weight of bureaucracy, but rather they can be the impetus on the structures that do exist to wrench the wheel and begin to change direction. Social movements, like that of the divestment campaign, climate marches and the battle for civil rights in the 50s can thrust the change of motion of much larger, heavier, more cumbersome processes than themselves.

These are not simple processes and we shy away from emphasising them as methods for change because they are dirty, dangerous, unassured and hard-fought but, in the face of a challenge of such magnitude, they are perhaps essential.

Stabinsky’s leading message was that we must provoke, not just to stick it to the man or for reason of rebellion, but because the ship needs turning and turning soon. Do that, reach out and push the wheel, and at least there is a chance that the rest might follow.

By: Sam Airey

Thanks for reading! Check out Doreen Stabinsky’s opening lecture here. Also give a visit to the lovely CeMuse Magazine!

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